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The Quality of Mercy

For years a friend of mine has hosted an annual Shakespeare party. It used to be held around William Shakespeare’s birthday (April 23), but usually it is now held just before Lent, when the weather is more amenable to wearing heavy costumes. It also serves as a final farewell to the Christmas partying season. The party includes music and skits prepared by the guests, either from Shakespeare or evocative of his time.

This year’s Shakespeare party will be tonight. It’s not often that dramatic readings from Shakespeare can have a “ripped from the headlines” feel to them, but in light of the recent confirmation that the skeleton of King Richard III has been identified with as near a certainty as science can give to bones five centuries old, it seems particularly appropriate that this year I will be participating in a scene from Henry VI, Part 3. This play acted as a prelude of sorts to Richard III, the play that enshrined the last Plantagenet king and the last English monarch to die in battle as an archvillain. In the scene chosen from Henry VI, I will play Queen Margaret, who was described to me by the director of the night’s entertainment as “a bloodthirsty, savage queen.” Since the scene has Margaret taunting the Duke of York (Richard III’s father) with the fact that she has just had murdered the man’s 11-year-old son (Richard’s brother), I was forced to agree with that assessment.

Queen Margaret’s speech will be quite a departure for me from my favorite Shakespeare speech, one that I love so much that I performed it two years in a row for the party. In The Merchant of Venice the heroine, Portia, tries to convince a Jewish moneylender, Shylock, not to insist upon taking a pound of flesh from Antonio (the title merchant). Antonio unwisely used his flesh as a security for a loan from Shylock, and Antonio seems to have defaulted upon his loan. In what is commonly called the Mercy Speech, Portia pleads:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

When Shylock insists he must have his pound of flesh, Portia pulls out a legal trick and saves the day for Antonio. Shylock, on the other hand, is stripped of everything he has, even his very religion. For today’s audiences, the complete humiliation of Shylock is extremely controversial. Enacted on stage, it can be difficult to watch. In one performance I attended, when the director had a supporting character snatch the kippah (skullcap) from Shylock’s head as a symbolic stripping of Shylock’s religion, the audience literally gasped together.

I have studied this scene many times over the years, and here are my thoughts on Shakespeare’s intent:

Portia all but falls to her knees during the Mercy Speech in her attempt to move Shylock to mercy. The scene makes no sense otherwise. (At that same performance, the director’s choice to have Portia stare off into middle distance to flatly, emotionlessly declaim the speech annoyed me precisely because it was an attempt to make Portia’s speech unsympathetic to the audience.) When Shylock refuses Portia’s plea, Shakespeare shows that the refusal of mercy has dire consequences:

For, as thou urgest justice, be assured
Thou shalt have justice, more than thou desirest.

I believe that all that happens afterward to Shylock is Shakespeare’s dire warning that mercy refused for another means there will be no mercy for the unmerciful (cf. Matt. 7:2). That person will be stripped of all that he has and is. 

Even more, Shakespeare cautions that the refusal of mercy for another may even cause one’s own death. In the play, Shylock exits the scene a broken man, murmuring piteously that he is “not well.” He is not heard from throughout the rest of the play, of which an entire act is left to run. Since the play is a comedy, Shakespeare could not literally kill off Shylock, but I believe Shylock’s exit is a symbolic death. Some have argued in recent decades that Shylock is a tragic hero, not the villain he was thought to be by audiences in Shakespeare’s day, and I think this reading of Shylock’s exit from the play supports such an interpretation.

We like to think that we are not Shylock. We want to believe we would not be so cruel as to expect repayment in flesh for any debt owed to us. We want to think we would listen to Portia and tear the bond. But would we really? What about situations in our own day that seem to cry out for mercy? What are our reactions?

A murderer on death row asks for clemency. Do we hope for the murderer that the governor will commute the sentence, or do we bay for the murderer’s blood while draped in the robes of justice? We enter into debate over hotly contested actions taken by our own country against our enemies, such as the dropping of nuclear bombs on Japan by the U.S. during World War II. Do we accept what the Church has to say about such actions (cf. Gaudium et Spes 80), or do we seek to rationalize away what the Church teaches so as to uphold the presumed righteousness of our country and the presumed rightness of its cause?

These are merely the extraordinary cases. What about everyday opportunities we often encounter to forgive a betrayal, to forget a loan, or to reconcile with someone who has done us harm? How quickly do we stretch out our arms in compassion instead of our fists in anger?

Portia continues to plead today, not just to Shylock, but to the Shylock in all of us:

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.


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